The Free Egyptians

Egyptian Eelections Watch (Ahram Online and Jadaliyya) , Friday 18 Nov 2011

Al-Masreyeen Al-Ahrrar

Prominent Coptic-Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, ranked number sixty on Forbes’ 2008 list of billionaires and owner of multinational enterprises throughout Africa and the Middle East, founded the Free Egyptians Party shortly after Egypt’s January 25 Revolution. The party's main objective, as stated on its website, is to promote the economic and social development of Egypt “and make it a nation in which civil rights and equality of duties prevail, free from any form of religious, gender, ethnic or social discrimination.” While the party is rumored to have access to considerable financial resources due to its ties with Sawiris, it unclear whether it will succeed in translating its allegedly vast resources to parliamentary representation in the upcoming electoral battles.

Free Egyptians is viewed by some observers as the most right-wing of the political parties to emerge in the wake of the revolution, owing to its platform, composition, and positions on various economic and social issues. When the party was established, Sawiris declared that he was expecting a conflict with well-established political groups that had been “active for eighty years”—an obvious reference to Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood.

In the months since the revolution, the party has expanded into a number of Egyptian governorates. With a strong and well-financed managerial and structural setup, the party currently boasts some 120,000 members, including some renowned public figures such as journalist Mohamed Salmawy, poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, and young businessman Khalid Bichara. Indicators of large Coptic majority in the party could not be confirmed, but one source indicates seventy percent.

Officially launched on 4 July 2011, the party espouses the principles of a secular civil state, with free markets and limited state involvement in economic life. Meanwhile, the party does not include social justice among its chief principles but rather among its objectives, albeit briefly.

Before the Revolution

Sawiris never played a direct political role before Egypt’s revolution. He founded two satellite television channels in recent years, O-TV and On-TV, both of which feature political discussion and debate. At one point, On-TV featured a highly viewed talk show hosted by renowned Egyptian journalist and vocal Mubarak regime critic Ibrahim Eissa.

Sawiris’s name first came to the forefront of public discussions during the 1990s when the state awarded his company MobiNil one of two mobile telephone licenses in the country. While his political leanings were not obvious at the time, it was assumed that Sawiris enjoyed good relations with the Mubarak regime, since such licenses were usually awarded to individuals with friendly ties to the ruling party. Some media reports assert that Sawiris was close to Mubarak’s son Gamal, who was apparently being groomed to assume the presidency after his father. After Mubarak’s downfall, however, Sawiris asserted that he had differences with Mubarak’s son, but acknowledged that Mubarak’s rule was not entirely negative and that his own businesses and interests have grown during the deposed president’s reign.

Party Structure

The Free Egyptians’ current interim structureincludes a three-person board appointed to lead the party until parliamentary elections. This board includes Hani Sarie Al-Din, who served as chairof the Capital Markets Authority and boar chair of a number of banks.

The Free Egyptians’ institutional structure and bylaws are unusually detailed compared to other parties. For example, the documents detailing the party’s structure and bylaws are considerably larger than the party’s political program. The core body of the party is its Central Office (Al-Maktab Al-Seyassy), which is elected from the party’s Supreme Council, which is, in turn, elected from its General Assembly.

Party elections are conducted every four years based on simple majority. The party’s bylaws state that in cases where the head of the party chooses to have two deputies, at least one must be younger than thirty-five years of age. Similarly, at least twenty five per cent of the party’s Central Office members must be below the age of thirty-five.

Parliamentary Elections

The party is participating in the election through the Egyptian Bloc coalition, an electoral alliance proclaiming a commitment to a strong separation between religious and political affairs. In the upcoming elections, the Egyptian Bloc will field 412 candidatesfor the 508-member lower house of parliament.The Bloc is contesting all 332 party list seats available in the lower house, in addition to fielding eighty (out of a possible 166) candidates for single-winner seat races.The legal framework governing the elections gives the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the right to appoint ten of the 508 members of the lower house.

Half of the Bloc’s candidates are affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party, forty percent from the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and ten percent from Al-Tagammu Party.

A party leader stated in September that the party would seek to win twenty-five percent of parliamentary seats. Sawaris announcedin late October that he expects the Free Egyptians to win no more than fifty seats in the upcoming election. Judging by the extent of the main party offices’ activities and locations, it can be stated that the Free Egyptians enjoys considerable following in South Sinai, Port Said, and Alexandria.

Relationship with Other Political Parties

The party is a member of the Egyptian Bloc electoral coalition, and plans to participate in upcoming elections in close coordination with its coalition partners. The Egyptian Bloc at some point included twenty-one political groups, but following successive defections during the lead up the election, only three parties remained in the Bloc, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Al-Tagammu Party, in addition to the Free Egyptians. Defections were reportedly the result of inter-party conflicts over seat shares and the relative positions of various candidates in the lists. The fact that each list consists on average of only seven seats makes it difficult for a large number of parties to cooperate in a single coalition. All coalitions experienced similar defections once they started forming their joint electoral lists.

Disagreements were also associated with allegations that some parties are fielding former members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) as candidates to the dismay of member groups that oppose any participation by ex-regime members in the elections. A Free Egyptian Party official concededthat the Egyptian Bloc’s list includes eight former NDP members, but insisted that none of them were engaged in corrupt practices.

The Egyptian Bloc is often portrayed as a “secular-leaning” alliance that seeks to counterbalance the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically the Democratic Alliance’s electoral coalition, which the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party dominates. The fact that the Bloc brings together a group of secular leaning parties with opposing economic agendas, such as the socialist Al-Tagammu Party and the pro-business Free Egyptians Party strongly reinforces this perception.

The press conference launching the Egyptian Bloc’s electoral campaign featured strong attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Tagammu Party’s Rifaat Al-Said accused the Brotherhood of trying to “hijack Egypt and Egyptians” and said that the group is driven by its goal to dominate politicseven if it comes at the expense of national interests. Al-Said is known as a long-standing and vehement critic of Islamist groups.

Under the slogan “together, we will achieve what is ours,” the Bloc’s campaignunderscores goals of building a civil democratic state, and promoting economic prosperity through a liberal economy committed to social justice. For many observers, however, it is unclear how this unlikely partnership between the Free Egyptians Party, known for its pro-business orientations, and the socialist Al-Tagammu, could possibly yield a meaningful joint vision for the future of Egypt’s economy.Since its inception, Al-Tagammu has sought to fight economic liberalization, as well as many aspects of the economic vision that the Free Egyptians espouses. Nonetheless, members of the Bloc announced in early November that their partnership is not simply a short-term electoral coalition, but encompasses a long-term political alliance aimed at turning Egypt into a civil democratic state.

Stances on Salient Issues

Social Justice

The term “social justice” is mentioned only three times throughout the party’s entire political program, although there are a handful of references to the state’s responsibility for the nation’s poor. The program also contains proposals to establish a minimum wage, offer unemployment benefits, and provide universal health insurance.

On the other hand, the section on education policies, while noting the importance of free education, also stresses the idea of merit-based scholarships in the provision of state support to students.

Economic Policy

While the party’s program stresses free market principles throughout, there are also sections that underscore the state’s responsibility for national projects, such as the Development Corridor. Proposed by Farouq Al-Baz, the Development Corridor initiative seeks to create a north-south road extending parallel to the Nile to the West, and to establish cities and agriculture land around it. The party’s program also proposes fixed (i.e., non-progressive) taxes with a tax-exemption setup for low-income citizens. Sawiris announced through his twitter account that he is preparing the party’s economic program and that he is “not sure left wingers will like it,” hinting to his party’s commitment to fairly uninhibited free markets.

The contradiction between the party’s free market-oriented vision and the economic platform of fellow Egyptian Bloc member, Al-Tagammu Party is striking.

Religion and State

The party calls for the complete separation of religion and state. It proposes, however, to maintain Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution—which states that Islam is the religion of the state—while guaranteeing the rights of non-Muslims to be governed by their own personal status laws.

Military Trials

As a member of the Egyptian Bloc, the party is a signatory to the bloc’s statement rejecting the use of military trialsagainst civilians. Free Egyptians Party members participated in the 9September popular demonstration against the practice of referring civilians to military courts.

Strike Law and Labor Movements

Unlike most parties, the Free Egyptians Party quickly declared its support for the 13 July statement of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regarding the illegality of any behavior that would threaten the freedom of commerce during strikes and demonstrations. While no official statement was made in relationship to labor, but Sawiris has expressed reservations about “sector-based” (fi’awi) strikes and demonstrations, which, he says, risk destroying the countries’ economic security.

Foreign Relations

The party’s program supports a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions. It calls for enhancing economic relations with the United States outside of the confines of U.S. assistance to Egypt.

Media Image and Controversies

Controversy surrounding the party soared in August 2011 after its cofounder Naguib Sawiris posted a link to cartoon depicting Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed in Islamic garb on his twitter account. Party founder Sawiris had publicly declared before that he fears that Egypt could turn into a “new Iran.” Sawiris, along with the party’s officials, has stated that he does not lead the Free Egyptians Party nor does he hold any official posts inside it, though media reports continue to link them.

Party leaders’ statements suggest that it enjoys wide-based financial support. A statement by party representative Ragy Soliman to Al-Dostour Online declared a total budget of 6.5 millionEGP, gathered from twenty-seven members, none of whom contributed more than twenty percent of the budget. A subsequent statement suggested that the funds available to the party had since increased to sixteen millionEGP. The party has consistently denied allegations that Sawiris represents the party’s sole financier.

Key Figures

Naguib Sawiris

Egyptian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris joined Orascom Construction in 1979, subsequently leading the company’s expansion into the field of communication technology. He established Egypt’s first mobile communication network before later expanding into the telecoms market in Africa and Pakistan. During Egypt’s recent eighteen-day uprising, Sawiris, along with other prominent Egyptian figures, were named a member of a “Council of Elders,” which was tasked with mediating between revolutionaries and the embattled Mubarak regime. The Counil did not end up playing any meaningful role.

Mohamed Salmawy

A journalist and writer, Salmawy is the head of the Egyptian Writers’ Union and former chief editor of official French-language weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo. He has also served as Egyptian undersecretary of state for foreign cultural relations at the Ministry of Culture.

Ahmed Fouad Negm

A celebrated Egyptian poet, Negm is known for his fierce opposition to previous regimes, which resulted in his imprisonment on more than one occasion. The late Sheikh Imam turned Negm’s poems into popular songs, many of which were chanted by revolutionaries during the eighteen-day uprising.

Khaled Bishara

Kahled Bishara is a founding member of the Free Egyptians Party. A young Egyptian entrepreneur, Bishara is Group Chief Executive Officer of Orascom Telecom Holding, one of the largest GSM operators in Egypt and Africa.

Farouk Al-Baz

A prominent Egyptian-American scientist, Al-Baz worked for NASA's Apollo Program until 1972. His proposal for a superhighway in Egypthas attracted wide attention in the wake of the revolution.

Fact Box

Founding: July 2011

Membership: 120,000

Political Orientation: Right wing, secular

Alliances: Member of the Egyptian Bloc

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